Nine months ago, Mel Kaufman had decided to give up football. He figured no pro team would want a 205-pound linebacker from a little-known California college, even if Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo) had won the NCAA Division II title in his senior year.
Now Kaufman is one day away from starting for the Redskins against the New York Giants, replacing injured Rich Milot. He's flying his mother from Los Angeles to Washington for the occasion, as a special birthday present. As for his friends back home who remember him as a skinny 175-pound high school star, he says, "They are really freaking out over what's happening to me."
Kaufman also is stunned. He had envisioned himself working for the state of California this fall. He was so sure about his lack of a football future that he consistently turned down any NFL scouting tryouts last winter, until Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard showed up at Cal Poly.
"My coach told me this was one tryout I should go through," Kaufman said, not knowing that Beathard was a Cal Poly alumnus. "So I said okay, and I had a good workout. Bobby was really enthusiastic about it and that got me thinking.
"Everyone who plays football always has in the back of their minds that they want to play in the pros, but I thought it wasn't very realistic for me. Then when I did well in that tryout, I worked with other teams too. I knew I wouldn't be drafted, but I decided I wanted a chance to go to training camp."
Beathard was determined to sign Kaufman as a free agent from the moment the tryout ended. The Redskin scouting combine had listed him as a reject -- "no ability," the report said -- but Beathard liked Kaufman's speed, his agressiveness and his ability to cover backs on pass patterns.
"We hadn't looked at him in the game films but I went back and studied him and I liked what I saw," Beathard said. "He was on the small side but he got on weights and came to camp at 223. In a year, he'll be built up and strong."
Still, Kaufman was a longshot to make the team. He had to beat out Farley Bell, a 1980 draft choice, and also had to survive a decision by the team to keep six, not seven, linebackers. But Kaufman has grown accustomed to pulling off surprises.
"It seems like whatever level I've played, I wasn't supposed to do the job," he said. "In high school, I played defensive line and inside linebacker at 175 pounds. Even though I made a lot of all-star games, I didn't get many college offers. The big schools like UCLA and USC got interested in me when they saw my statistics (13 tackles a game his senior year) and then disinterested when they saw my body.
"I had a friend at Cal Poly who told them about me. That's the only reason they probably wanted me. And they thought I was too small for linebacker, so they wanted me to be a safety. I asked them to keep me at linebacker, that I could handle it."
Kaufman started three seasons at Cal Poly, although he was overshadowed on a team that produced three pro draft choices last spring. But even during his senior year, he was preparing for a future without football.
"I remember the coaches got mad at me one time," he said. "It was really hot, like 103 or so, and they changed the practice to night. It was the same night that I had a class, so I went to the class and missed the workout. They couldn't understand how I could do that.
"But I told them that I was there to study first and play football second. I had to worry about my future. I had my fun in sports but I was ready to go onto to something else. My body was sore and I was tired of getting beat up."
He's glad he changed his mind. "I wouldn't want to be doing anything different than playing in this game Sunday," he said. "It fulfills my wildest dreams. I just wish my dad could see this. He died when I was in 12th grade. He always wanted me to be a baseball player, but he'd still be happy."
Pro teams delight in testing rookie free agents, so the Giants most likely won't take long to acknowledge his presence in the starting lineup. Larry Peccatiello, the Redskin linebacker coach, says Kaufman is going to be a surprise Sunday.
"I'm not concerned about him, because he's been trained to take over if necessary, and now this is his chance," Peccatiello said. "We expect the Giants to test him and I hope they do. It will help Mel to loosen up quickly and it also will tell the Giants he can handle it.
"He caught our eye from the first day of the first minicamp in May. He's a fine athlete, he can control his body well and he moves into his drops well. He also has the ability to cover patterns. He has that innate football talent that you just don't teach. Obviously, he's inexperienced and you can't make up for that. But he's progressed steadily every week."
Milot continues to have a sore shoulder. Peccatiello says he will be available in emergencies "but we'd like to keep him out if we could. When he hurt the shoulder again in the Dallas game last week, we probably shouldn't have played him. That became a problem for him, trying to tackle with one arm."
About the only problem Kaufman has encountered is his weight. He keeps losing pounds despite a diet that includes plenty of milkshakes, bananas and food supplements. He has gone from 223 to 215 since the start of camp and doesn't look much like a football player in street clothes.
"That's what amazes me about Washington," he said. "I was at the airport this week and someone still recognized me. The same thing at McDonald's the other night. I mean, I haven't even played yet."
Joe Washington missed another practice yesterday because of the flu, but Coach Joe Gibbs said he was sure the veteran halfback would play Sunday . . . The Giants continue to list tackle Jeff Weston (hamstring) as doubtful and tackle Brad Benson (ankle) as questionable. If neither can play, ex-Redskin Tim Stokes, just signed as a free agent, will start.